The FT Word – November 2009

By Technical Support

The FT Word

The FT Word is a free monthly newsletter with support management tips. To subscribe, send us email with your email address. The subscription list is absolutely confidential; we never sell, rent, or give information about our subscribers. Here’s a sample.


Welcome to the November 2009 edition of the FT Word. Please forward it to your colleagues. (They can get their own subscription here.)

Topics for this month:

· Escalation management and bridges?

· Preparing for the economic recovery

Escalation Management and Bridges?

As an eighth grader I took a career aptitude test that revealed that I might be a good civil engineer. At that age I had no idea what civil engineers might do but when I was told that they built bridges I was hooked: what an exciting line of work! Decades later, having  clearly missed out on that career (although building support organizations has turned out to be a most advantageous replacement!), I’m still fascinated by bridges.

So I paid close attention, along with millions of San Francisco Bay Area residents, when the Bay Bridge was closed last Tuesday, 10/27, after a cable snapped during the afternoon commute, fortunately causing no casualty, and until it finally reopened today, six days later. The Bay Bridge is not the photogenic Golden Gate bridge this area is known for but it is, by far, the most used of our seven bridges, carrying 280,000 drivers to their destination daily – and generating a third of the bridge toll revenues in the process, so the closure was a big problem. But how does it compare to a support escalation?

There were lots of actors in the mix. Caltrans, the California department of transportation, is in charge of the bridge, but there were at least two contractors involved, one who was working on the bridge at the time (ironically building the replacement bridge that is designed to be earthquake-resistant) and one who had created the temporary fix that failed that evening and who supplied assistance during the repair. So there were plenty of opportunities for finger-pointing and confusion. Sounds familiar?

The technical problem was complicated. I certainly cannot explain the details of the failure (I missed out on a career as a civil engineer, remember?) but it arose from a temporary brace that had been put in place to address an earlier problem detected during a routine inspection and had itself required closing the bridge a few weeks ago. Braces are basically clamps but the failure came from metal parts grinding against each other so required a custom solution to avoid future grinding on a structure that vibrates from the traffic and the wind.  There was no off-the-shelf solution, that’s for sure.

It was windy. OK, we rarely have wind problems in tech support but we often have complicating factors: the development engineer is on vacation; this area of the code is older. Caltrans had no control over the wind but the issue created doubt in commuters’ minds. Sure it was windy but the bridge is in a windy place every day, so if the wind is a problem does it mean that the bridge cannot withstand the gusts it will surely endure over the winter? Clearly welding a huge piece of metal hundreds of feet above the bridge has got to be a lot more dangerous than driving on the bridge, but rational minds are not always at work during a frustrating emergency: doubt was sown.

The messages were contradictory. Before settling into a silly message of “we have no idea when the bridge may reopen” (surely that cannot be: it has to be fixed within a month, say), Caltrans treated the public to frequent but not regularly scheduled updates that alternated between “tomorrow for sure” and “not so sure”. Interestingly, Caltrans had a good reputation with Bay Area residents before this incident. We had suffered through a melted overpass (really!) close to the entrance of the bridge a couple of years earlier that was fixed quickly and with impeccable communication to commuters. The earlier repair that just failed had necessitated a bridge closure just a few weeks ago but it was framed as a safety precaution and the closure ended as announced, so there was little grumbling. But this time the contradictory, seemingly ad-hoc messaging created distrust: how can we go from reopening tomorrow to “ we have no idea”?

The focus was on the full fix rather than the steps in the process. Understandably the public and the journalists just wanted to know when the bridge would be reopened, especially since the details of the repair are so obtuse – and the beleaguered Caltrans spokesman obliged by focusing on the reopening timeframe, which turned out to be a moving target. It would have been much better to focus on the steps required to fix the bridge such as: brace design, brace welding, testing, inspection – simple steps that non-engineers can grasp. While everyone wanted the bridge to reopen we would have been much more patient and understanding if we could have followed progress (and setbacks too!) Too much of a black box creates doubt.

Workarounds took a long time to put in place. There is a subway system in the Bay Area and one of its lines lies under the beleaguered bridge. That line was our lifeline twenty years ago after the Loma Prieta quake that damaged the same bridge and kept it closed for a month. It was a lot easier to understand the issue then, and there were many more tragic images to remind us that there were worse things to endure than a packed subway car, but the workarounds were in place: longer trains, ferries, more frequent schedules. This time, we were treated to a publicly-aired disagreement on who would pay for nighttime trains, at least for the first few days of the closure. If a good workaround had been put in place immediately people would have felt taken care of, and reacted more positively.

Delays and uncertainty encouraged random critics. Put yourself in the shoes of the journalists covering the closure. There’s really nothing to see (and some of us even wonder whether  the pictures of the aerial welders we saw during the first few days were just for show) but you need to sell papers and ads so what do you do? Interview a slew of “experts” who will explain how the design of the bridge is inherently unsafe and how the problems will occur again and how Caltrans just does not know how to keep the bridge safe. If Caltrans had provided regular and meaningful, if non-technical updates (i.e., based on progress) on a regular basis, direct to the public, it could have short-circuited a lot of the media circus that undermined its credibility.

Are your support escalations as bumbling as the Bay Bridge closure? With scheduled, meaningful updates focused on required steps to resolution you can create trust and credibility even during a long and complex technical process. With workarounds you can demonstrate to customers that you care about them and their business. And you can plan for all that in advance: you don’t know when your next escalation will be, but you know there will be one!

For more details on managing support escalations, check out Managing Escalations, one of 17 FT Works booklets.

Preparing for the Recovery

We’re seeing signs of the economy recovering, although we would all like to see more and stronger ones… And as I visit with various support organizations I am struck by how little thought is given to the recovery. Sure we all have our hands full fighting fire, but it would be good to plan ahead a bit. Here are 7 points to think about:

Get strategic. You may have functioned with all hands on deck and no strategic bandwidth for a while but that may have had an advantage: to give you time to define where to go next. Time to bring the management team together and think through some of the more ambitious ideas you’ve been mulling. How can you transform your organization into the proactive, customer-centric, value-add partner you’d like to be?

Add high-end support offerings. While customers are pinching pennies is not a good time to roll out high-end packages but you can define them and be ready as the economy improves. I see a lot of support organizations.

Streamline processes. You may have been forced to change some processes because of staffing restrictions. Some of the changes are for the worse and your first priority will be to re-establish the original processes as funding improves but other forced experiments may be successful. Perhaps you want all phone calls to go to the support engineers rather than a dispatcher? Perhaps you want to keep less-specialized teams to simplify routing. Take steps to make the successful changes permanent.

Secure your stars. As the economy improves jobs will become available (not a moment too soon, huh?) This means that you are likely to lose your best people (sorry!)  They are the most marketable ones and because of salary freezes they are not too expensive. Now is the time to show them some love, give them interesting projects, promote them to the appropriate levels even if your hands are tied when it comes to compensation.

Clean house. Many organizations have hiring freezes so it may seem foolish to put anyone on an improvement plan since you may not be able to replace the departed, but hanging on to the deadwood is very demoralizing for everyone else. Plus if you wait to clean house until after the economy improves you won’t be able to hire as easily, or as cheaply. There are many talented people for hire right now. Try to work out an arrangement to replace your poor performers so you can take advantage of the great pool.

Revisit the new hire training program. You are going to be hiring again, so it’s time to sweep the cobwebs off your new hire training program. It’s a good opportunity to review it and to adopt different methods and techniques. For instance if you were used to delivering a standard face-to-face training program perhaps you can experiment with a more flexible approach of webinars and independent work with a mentor.

Prioritize tool initiatives. Spending nothing is easy. When the door opens for new investments you should be ready to go: what do you want to invest in? What’s the expected return? Would it be better to invest in a forum or improvements to the case tracking system? You can prepare your investment strategy today, before you can actually do any spending.

For more details on injecting strategic thinking into support, see Managing Support Strategically from the FT Works library.

FT Works in the News

I’m still (still!) working on the support marketing book, revising and rewriting. I’m hopeful it can be released by year’s end! In the meantime check out the support marketing blog, Marketing Wise.

Curious about something? Send me your suggestions for topics and your name will appear in future newsletters. I’m thinking of doing a compilation of “tips and tricks about support metrics” in the coming months so if you have favorites, horror stories, or questions about metrics, please don’t be shy.

Françoise Tourniaire
FT Works
650 559 9826

Back to Newsletter Archive

Tagged under: